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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with James B. Hunt, October 3, 2001. Interview C-0332. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Hunt evaluates his political legacy as governor

Despite the challenges of clemency decisions and Republican opposition to his proposals, Hunt assesses his executive leadership positively. He considers education, transportation, and environmental improvements, as well as increased governmental ethics as his crowning achievements.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with James B. Hunt, October 3, 2001. Interview C-0332. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK FLEER:
Governor, looking back over your sixteen years as governor, what do you see as the legacy of the Hunt administration?
JAMES B. HUNT:
I think the main legacy would be education. It would be a focus on early childhood, Smart Start, kindergartens, primary reading programs, full-time assistants to help the teachers in grades one, two and three. The roles of some of them have changed but the major emphasis on the early years. I think I told you that I had the chap from the Rand Corporation in; David Griswold is that his name. What's his name, Jack?
JACK FLEER:
I don't know.
JAMES B. HUNT:
We were talking about the NAEP scores were coming up in the next couple of weeks, and of course you know an exceptional thing was happening with regard to that. Pretty amazing. Did I give you a copy of those latest NAEP scores?
JACK FLEER:
No. I haven't seen them. Let me turn this thing off.
JAMES B. HUNT:
Everybody was amazed at them. I called the guy at NGA yesterday, the day before, and he had just said he couldn't believe it. He said, ‘You're approaching the state of Connecticut almost.’ Connecticut's number one on everything. But the fellow from the Rand Corporation, which analyzes these things, said he thought the reason we were making such astounding progress was because of our focus on the early years. Now that story will be fully written yet, but so I would say education, early childhood, improving and stressing better teaching, support for teachers, putting in standards and accountabiliity, focusing on community involvement, mentoring and things of that sort. I think that will be the big, I think economic development will be. Putting in the microelectronic center, putting in the biotechnology center, establishing the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University. Those are, that will move North Carolina into a new kind of economy. We've got additional challenges along those lines. The School of Science and Mathematics goes right along with that with its emphasis on science and technology. Toward the end I think we were making a real mark in environmental protection. That's not going to be the big chapter I'm sure in my record. Public protection was a lot of work but that certainly will not get written up as a—. I would say what I call government reform, the additional powers of the governor that you mentioned, abolishing the patronage office in the governor's office, strengthening government ethics. You know we had our little problem in the transportation department, but out of it we sort of changed the system. I think those will be some of the things.
JACK FLEER:
Let me explore one of those in particular because you've mentioned it in an earlier session. You said you'd abolished the patronage office. I understand that to be the case. But there will still be appointments maybe influenced by political party considerations. So are you saying that's not going to occur.
JAMES B. HUNT:
There will be some. People will always find a way to kind of enter the process. There is not now and I doubt there will be again an office in the governor's office where they specifically call over to departments and recommend people, and we have reduced the number of exempt positions now to about a hundred. It used to be five or seven hundred that we used to have doing it.
JACK FLEER:
Is that real change or is that superficial change?
JAMES B. HUNT:
You ask the people out there in the counties if that's real change. It is real change. It cuts both ways to be honest. The bureaucrats know how to work the system. This gives them a chance to decide whom they want, and they have their own buddies too. Sometimes and they may be a little less responsive to the governor's leadership. I didn't think the patronage system was so terrible, but it got a bad name; it was abused some. It was the right thing to do to change that. Kind of like I guess putting in the civil service system, you could argue that both ways. Probably on balance it was right.
JACK FLEER:
Governor, given sixteen years of service in the office, what are the most difficult types of decisions that you had to make as governor?
JAMES B. HUNT:
Well, sort of tactically speaking the most difficult decisions were how to get your program enacted. That became particularly the case when you had Republicans take control of the legislature in '94. Do you do it by just appealing, trying to get people to understand, trying to see people, talk to people? I'd got out having visits [to] Smart Start across North Carolina, and I'd try my best to get the Republicans to come. They wouldn't ever show. Two or three of them came. Most of them refused to come. They wouldn't be seen with me. They didn't want to hear a word about the good points of the program from their own people. Totally closed minded about it, many of them. There were exceptions. Representative Holmes came when I went up to Wilkes County and Yadkin County. Representative Gene up in Salisbury came. Some of them did come, but many of them are just hard core opponents to this kind of thing. Finding out, you know one year they didn't pass the budget and what I had decided to do. What do you do about that now? How do you bring them back in and get a budget? Well, what I did was I went out on the road and took a stick to them. I went out and spoke to state employees who hadn't had a raise and teachers who hadn't had a raise and didn't have—. Here was school starting, and they had more kids that were coming to school, and they didn't have teachers to teach them. I went out as Harry Truman said and told them the truth about them. But trying to figure out how to deal with that. Bring them over here for almost a twelve-hour session without interruption at the library of the legislature about '97 or '98, whatever year that was when they couldn't pass a budget. It was the hard right crowd running rampant over everything. [Thank you, Sheila.] Trying to figure out how to get things done, how to get that special crime session where Speaker Blue and his lieutenants were sitting on my bills and wouldn't even have committee meetings to take them up. Trying to figure out how to break that impasse. Of course a lot of this happened back when we didn't have the veto. How tactically— [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
JAMES B. HUNT:
The story of the falls up at the DuPont Forest. I guess you followed that story. The falls, the waterfalls of the (last of the Mohicans) are on the property that we had the state condemn and secure for the people of North Carolina. A lot of people felt like it was overreaching, an improper use of state power. A lot of the legislators up there opposed it. They didn't want us to do it. Tried to reach a settlement with the guy. Couldn't ever do it. Finally, didn't have any money to buy it with. Finally you just said this is such invaluable precious property that the people must have it, and you've got to protect the water. So I made a decision to do it. Most people counseled against it. I thought it was the right thing to do, and I'm certain history will bear that out. Thank goodness Marc Basnight had created the Clean Water Trust Fund. They were the only place that had any money after the flood and all that you know. Decisions about capital punishment are always tough, got tougher and tougher and taken more of my time. I would generally spend two or three days, eight hours days going into all of that.
JACK FLEER:
What was important to you in those decisions because other governors have mentioned that that is among the most difficult decisions? How did you go about doing that?
JAMES B. HUNT:
First of all I did a very careful research on those cases. I read the transcripts from court. I received information from both sides. I heard from both sides. I spent hours and hours sometimes, whole days to both sides of the issue. I remember going back to the Wilmington Ten. Do you remember that case?
JACK FLEER:
I do.
JAMES B. HUNT:
Back when I was first governor.
JACK FLEER:
One of your very difficult early decisions.
JAMES B. HUNT:
I bet you I spent months on that case. You still have to do your day work. You'd spend the night reading that stuff and just received comments and checking things out. The one grandmother that had given arsenic to five husbands. Do you remember that?
JACK FLEER:
In the Burlington area.
JAMES B. HUNT:
Billy Graham's wife wrote me on that one.
JACK FLEER:
Billy Graham's wife?
JAMES B. HUNT:
Wife, Mrs. Graham who I think very highly of. You have to do a lot of research about what are the effects of drugs on people about their state of mind and all those things. You really have to learn a lot about how this stuff works. Then you have to find out about what went on at the trial. A lot of that is not apparent just from the record. You have to do a lot of probing and a lot of questioning and send your legal counsel out to ask questions and to determine things. So that was another tough set of—
JACK FLEER:
I believe the record shows that you did not grant clemency until actually your last couple of decisions in this area. Was that a change in philosophy?
JAMES B. HUNT:
No, it was not. I found a case where there were several defendants. One of them got the death penalty, and the others who had been involved in the same stuff got life, and I concluded it was unfair. So I commuted his sentence to life. The other was a case in which I just found that there had not been effective representation of the defendant. There was some indication that the jury might have been hung, in fact had been in the first trial, and I always looked very hard at the procedural things. Is there evidence of guilt? Is there sufficient evidence. Was the trial done fairly? So that's what happened in the other case.
JACK FLEER:
And you hadn't found any evidence of unfair procedures prior to two years ago?
JAMES B. HUNT:
No, prior to what?
JACK FLEER:
Well, I think these two cases were in the last two years. Excuse me.
JAMES B. HUNT:
Well, no. No. Not I mean there are always some things that are maybe a little questionable but clear unfairness or ineffective counsel [unclear] .